The Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) Class of 2019 included nearly 2,000 students who graduated from high school earlier this month. While many graduated with honors, academic accolades or athletic accomplishments, other graduates focused on the end goal: receiving a high school diploma.
The path to graduation is not the same for any one student. But with a variety of options, such as career and technology education (CTE) completer programs, evening high school and dual college enrollment, students are achieving success. High school students now have another option to consider on their path to graduation: the Virtual Academy.
Piloted in 2016 at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center, the Virtual Academy features options for high school students to take classes both in an online format and with face-to-face instruction. Students attend classes for five consecutive hours per day, four days a week. Virtual Academy is an option for students who want to graduate, are mature enough to balance instruction with online class responsibilities and those who just prefer a smaller, more personable classroom environment.
Recent North Point High School graduate Danielle Carpenito received her diploma May 30 alongside her classmates. She was one of 392 seniors at North Point to graduate, but completed her diploma requirements through the Virtual Academy. Carpenito is one of a small group of students who attended the academy for three years of high school. As a freshmen, she had learned to dislike school and considered dropping out.
“When I started high school, it was a tough transition for me. I needed help and didn’t feel I was receiving enough academic support. I started to not care about school and thought if no one wants to help me, why even try,” Carpenito said. Her family began to explore home school and reached out to staff at Stethem. Carpenito and her mom attended a Virtual Academy open house and toured Stethem. She was one of the 40 students who participated in the academy’s pilot year.
“My mom saw it as my solution. So I thought I would give it a try. Mrs. VanDyke made me feel so welcome. Within my first five days here, I felt like part of a family,” Carpenito said. Tiffany VanDyke is the Virtual Academy coordinator. Since the program started in 2016, more than 160 students have been accepted. VanDyke said students adjust quickly to the format, but have to be disciplined enough to manage the course work.
VanDyke said it did not take Carpenito long to adjust or develop a love for school. “It did not take long for her to fit in, make friends, and realize that she had a chance to graduate,” VanDyke said.
The student who once hated school finished her graduation requirements early and graduated with honors alongside her North Point cohort. She has been working full time as an assistant humane educator with the Humane Society of Charles County. In January, she will start her bachelor’s degree program in nursing at Salisbury University. “I would not have graduated had it not been for my Virtual Academy experiences,” Carpenito said.
For St. Charles High School graduate Tyler Harding, the Virtual Academy was a place where he felt supported after being told he would not graduate. “I wasn’t getting good grades and I could not focus. I didn’t feel like I was supported and I just didn’t care,” Harding said of his first two years of high school. He was encouraged by his parents to check out the Virtual Academy, and decided it was worth trying. He officially enrolled in the Virtual Academy at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
“I came in with all F’s. And I am leaving here with over a 3.0 GPA. My classes this [senior] year were tougher, but I did it,” Harding said. What made Virtual Academy work for Harding, according to him, were the smaller class sizes and less distractions. “Tyler came here after struggling with his grades and not liking the atmosphere of a big school. With consistent attendance and the help of his teachers, Tyler’s grades improved immensely. As did his attitude and confidence,” VanDyke said.
Harding is not sure of his future plans but is considering going to the College of Southern Maryland. He has played basketball for years and hopes to attend college and play on a competitive team. He celebrated his accomplishments on May 31 as he graduated with honors with his St. Charles cohort. For now, he is spending his time as a high school graduate working at CarMax as a reconditioning associate.
Harding is proud of what he achieved. “I finished high school with passing grades in two years. The one-on-one time is so helpful. If I could tell a student in my shoes two years ago anything, I would show them all of my F grades and tell them where I am now,” Harding said.
Henry E. Lackey High School recent graduate Kristian Proctor was in a similar situation as Carpenito. At the start of her high school career, Proctor was struggling with anxiety and lacked any interest in school. She was in and out her classes, skipped school days at a time and also moved to a different high school in another county. She had failing grades, poor attendance and needed help to get back on track.
Proctor looked to the evening high school program staff for support. This is where she met VanDyke, who encouraged her to enroll in the Virtual Academy. “At the end of the 17-18 school year, I handed her an application and asked her to apply. Kristian wanted to graduate badly, and she was showing incredible progress and self-motivation,” VanDyke said.
Proctor said her anxiety and dislike of school dominated her life for a long time. “I had some anxiety about school, and then moved to another high school. I hated it and school. I had no desire to finish,” Proctor said.
Now, the recent Lackey graduate plans to become a dermatologist. As she saw her own potential, her love for school grew. School became Proctor’s priority, and she exceled in her course work. Her favorite classes this year were Spanish and psychology. She has noticed a major difference in her confidence levels, outlook toward her future and loves to learn. Proctor recently completed driving school and is looking for a job. She was accepted to attend the College of Southern Maryland and is excited to continue her studies.
“Now, I want to be here … at school. I got in to CSM and took the placement test. I am ready,” Proctor said. She finished her final course toward her diploma, English, last month and graduated on June 1 with her cohort from Lackey. Without the academy, Proctor does not think she would be where she is now. “It is mind blowing that I am going to graduate. Everyone here is so supportive of me and believes in me,” Proctor said.
The Virtual Academy offers more than 30 A-level courses through the online APEX Learning Program. Students who meet graduation requirements receive their diplomas through their home school at the end of the school year. Virtual Academy students must remain in contact with their school counselor to ensure they are making progress toward graduation. Enrollment is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors annually. Visit the Virtual Academy website at https://www.ccboe.com/schools/stethem/index.php.
Charles County Public Schools provides 27,108 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 36 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Kathy Kiessling, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Nikial Majors, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.